My word, this book is dull. I had high hopes for this one, seeing that it appears in so many best-of lists. Even a Jeremy Irons performance on the audiobook (who was pretty awesome, I must say) could not detract from the extremely plodding storyline.
In summary, there’s this chap, Charles Ryder, who whilst studying in Oxford, befriended Sebastian Flyte, and then spends the novel basking in his friendship with Sebastian, meeting Sebastian’s rich, upperclass and staunchly Roman Catholic family and the goings in and out of the Flyte family mansion, Brideshead. The novel recounts Charles life as it revolves around Sebastian’s family, a story of reflection on family ties, expectations, religion and memories. In fact, the whole book is a retrospection of Ryder’s earlier life, as the novel starts with him, a middle-aged military man who in the course of his duties with his tour came across Brideshead almost inadvertently.
The writing is crisp, and the dialogue can be pretty funny in parts. The best part I have to say is the dry wit of Charles’s father, who spends some effort in tormenting Charles when he returns home to stay with father when he exhausted his funds during his study break.
Of course I’m simplifying the novel. There are parts of the novel that are complex, the relationships that are explored are complex, the sentimentality that’s evident throughout the book and the motivations of the characters, particularly between Charles and Sebastian’s sister Julia, are complex. But the story doesn’t move me in a way that generates excitement or urgency. This reminds me of a sequence in Robin Hobbs’s Farseer Trilogy, where in the second book, Royal Assassin, the bloody book seemed to roll along *but nothing bloody hell happens*!
(There, try to find another review that compares Waugh with a fantasy trilogy!)
If I’m pressed to find something to say about the book that’s intriguing, it’s the ambiguity in the exact nature of the relations between the main characters, Charles and Sebastian. This isn’t something that I considered while reading the book – in fact this because interesting after I was looking at reviews of the novels after I finished it. There were some odd (misplaced, I thought) passages where I raised an eyebrow, but nothing that explicitly said they were more than platonic. There was a scene where Charles was spending the summer in Brideshead with Sebastian, but their frolicking involved some stage of undress. At one point Sebastian calls out to Cordelia, his younger sister, to refrain from entering the area of the house where they were apparently lazing about without their shirts on. Like I said, I did not think much about this during the reading, but I was surprised and fascinated that this was so much in the front and centre in discussions of the book.
I considered for a time whether knowing if they really were physically getting it on affected my feelings about the book, and I decided in the end that this does not change anything at all. The book was still dull, the story did not burst forth in new understanding for me. The physical relationship between them, even if it were true, evidently wasn’t something Waugh wanted to dwell on, since Sebastian pretty much all but disappears from the story somewhere in the middle of the novel, and flitting in and out as Charles began to be described and defined by his relationship with first his wife, then with Julia.
Here’s another perspective from an Asian reader – the name Evelyn normally has been more associated with the fairer sex for the longest time. I’ve heard of Waugh for a long time, of course, but I’ve only within the last few years realized that Waugh was actually a man. I was just watching an episode of Downton Abbey where the love interest of the eldest daughter of the patriarch in the drama is named Evelyn, and I thought ‘how very English this name is’.